KENT, Ohio - ESPN pays the NFL $1.9 billion a year for the rights to televise Monday Night Football, the highest-rated show on cable television.
But that doesn’t prevent the sports network from investigating and reporting stories highly critical of the league, ESPN senior coordinating producer Dwayne Bray told journalism and mass communication students at Kent State University’s Franklin Hall on Monday.
“People think those leagues pay us. We pay them,” Bray said. “People would say ‘You’re crazy, you can’t go into partnership with these people and still cover them aggressively, that wouldn’t work.’ But it has worked. It makes no sense in a way, but at the same time it’s been very successful.
“No one ever told me, ‘Don’t do that story because they’re a partner.’ When we get a story, I always get the green light. Does that make David Stern or Roger Goodell or Bud Selig happy? Probably not. But it shows the public we are transparent, that we’re aggressive and that we cover these stories.”
A native of East Cleveland and a Cleveland State University graduate who was hired by ESPN in 2006, Bray heads a 20-person enterprise and investigative reporting unit. Many of his projects are shown on Outside The Lines, but his division is also involved with pieces on E:60, 30 for 30 and SportsCenter.
He brought with him video clips of some of the more contentious interviews done by his crew, including the recent Florida youth football gambling scandal, Florida A&M’s band hazing and charges of sexual abuse against a USA Swimming coach.
Bray rose through the ranks in the newspaper business, working in the metro and sports departments of the Medina Gazette, Dayton Daily News and Dallas Morning News. He started at ESPN as a news editor, assigned to Monday Night Football to develop storylines and talking points for the broadcast. In that role, one of his major issues to handle was Michael Vick’s arrest on dog-fighting charges.
When Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel was fired in 2011 for his attempted cover-up of NCAA violations by starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor and other players, Bray said he sent a producer based on the West Coast to Columbus for 30 days. A reporter spent nearly that long working the stories.
Eventually Bray ended up in his boss’s office asking if he could sue Ohio State.
“Ohio State didn’t want to turn over certain documents, citing FERPA or the Buckley Amendment,” Bray said. “Can you imagine, you’re in my position and you’ve got to go in your boss’s office and an Ohio State game’s on and you have to say, ‘Boss, I want to sue Ohio State.’ They didn’t stop me. We spent tens of thousands of dollars on that lawsuit.”
In June, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled in favor of OSU.
Bray said ESPN produces and operates the Longhorn Network at the University of Texas, another school he sued. ESPN lost that case, too, but Bray said his checking of the judge’s background revealed he had earned his undergraduate and law degrees from Texas.
“It’s hard to sue Ohio State and win. It’s hard to sue the University of Texas and win. But we try,” Bray said. He mentioned ESPN is also being sued for libel by Laurie Fine, wife of former Syracuse University basketball assistant Bernie Fine, over its allegations of Fine’s sexual abuse of children.
ESPN also has multibillion- dollar deals with the NBA and Major League Baseball.
To those who wonder if ESPN backs off stories involving business partners, Bray cited ESPN’s aggressive reporting of the Saints’ bounty scandal and the fact it broke the story of National League MVP Ryan Braun’s failed drug test, allegedly for steroids.
“Our job is to serve the sports fan,” Bray said. “That’s what drives the journalists at ESPN. That may sound hokey. In terms of hard-core investigative reporting, that means chasing the best stories out there. If you want to have high-impact journalism, you have to do stories on the most high-profile people.”
Bray said ESPN faces competition in investigative journalism from websites like Yahoo.
“But just like we lead the way in highlights or debate or analysis, we want to lead the way in journalism,” he said.